Archive for June, 2011

2,400 Thirsty Souls

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Little known fact: We regularly receive submissions from inmates. Oddly—and interestingly—they are never about prison life. We have not yet published any of these submissions, which often bear the marks of a struggle to communicate without adequate tools, physical and educational (sometimes they are handwritten; sometimes the sentences are either difficult to parse—i.e., confusing—or use a very limited lexicon). However, we have great hopes for future submissions from one particular prison. Here’s the story.

Our department received a letter from an inmate. It somehow ended up in our office, though the inmate was requesting not copies of our magazine (which sometimes happens) but rather textbooks on grammar, manuals giving guidance and tips on how to write both expository prose as well as poetry and fiction. The inmates, he wrote, want to learn. We headed to the department lounge, where professors and students alike stock the shelves with all kinds of no-longer-needed books for others to pick through and peruse. There were lots of books on writing. We packaged them up and shipped them off. A few weeks later, we received the following (abridged) letter:

I want to thank you for your kind act. For you see, our library is shared by 2,400 inmates, of whom, all will have access to your books. This is a great thing you have done for us. You answered a request from an obscure prison. . . . You cared enough for your fellow man to assist his love for the craft of writing. . . . If we could we would exclaim our gratitude loudly and proudly. But of course we are prevented from such outbursts. Nonetheless, please know we hold you in the highest regard. You did something very nice today. And for that, I say well done.
With creative sincerity,
[name of prisoner] and 2,399 other thirsty souls

Dispatches from Belfast

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

We’re pining for our poetry editor, who is reading CR submissions all the way across the pond (ain’t technology grand). He returns this summer from his semester-long stint at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in Belfast. We look forward to hearing all about his adventures abroad, but he’s been kind enough to treat us with a few choice tidbits for our blog. Thanks, Don!

Don Bogen: Since we get our news here largely from the BBC—their Belfast studios are just down the road—it’s hard to avoid detailed coverage of things royal, including, most recently, the wedding of Wills (as the press delights in calling him) and Kate. Among the wedding gifts Queen Elizabeth presented her grandson and his bride were various titles. The one that seems to have stuck is Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, which results in their being called now, somewhat awkwardly, the Cambridges. But, to take care of this particular realm of the United Kingdom, the couple has also been named Baron and Baroness of Carrickfergus, a small town just a train ride north of Belfast, near where the inlet called Belfast Lough meets the sea. We’d been up there once before but took the trip again recently with a visiting relative.

Carrickfergus (or Fergus’s Rock, where an ancient king was shipwrecked around 530) is a rather grim town in a gorgeous setting, with lovely views across the Lough toward Bangor and east toward Scotland. Its historic claim to fame is a fortified Anglo-Norman castle dating from the twelfth century, designed for protection against invaders from the sea.  It also has remnants of a city wall from the seventeenth century, designed for protection against the locals.  There are two gates left, one of which was particularly assigned to the Irish, who were allowed to come into the town and work during the day but kept out at other times. You can hear a good bit of the complicated history of this part of the world in the names of the folks running things, starting with those Norman types John de Courcy and Hugh de Lacy, down through Sir Arthur Chichester, the governor who built the walls and whose descendents became the Donegall dynasty—and on to the Windsors. It’s possible to buy a poster of the new Baron and his wife superimposed in front of a photograph of the castle, as if the couple were floating in a rowboat just beneath the tower. I don’t think they’ve visited yet.

Carrickfergus’s other noteworthy structure is the Church of St. Nicholas, where the father of the poet Louis MacNeice was rector. MacNeice was born in Belfast in 1907 but moved with his family to Carrickfergus in 1909. He spent most of his adult life in England and tends to be seen as a member of the Auden circle of the 1930s, but, as the poet Michael Longley points out in his fine introduction to MacNeice’s Selected Poems, his childhood in Ulster is fundamental to his work. Not as a source of happy memories—as the rector’s son, he felt alienated from both the working-class Catholic population and the dour Scottish Calvinism of the Presbyterians—but as the anchor for a  particular turn of mind that tempers lyricism with an eye for details in the real world. The opening of “Carrickfergus” gives a good sense of what this part of the world was like when he was a boy:

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries

To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:

Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim

Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,

The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;

The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses

But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.

The brook ran yellow from the factory stinking of chlorine,

The yarn-mill called its funeral cry at noon;

Our lights looked over the lough to the lights of Bangor

Under the peacock aura of a drowning moon.

Not to worry, Wills and Kate, the industrial griminess of both Belfast and Carrickfergus is long gone (along with the shipping and textile industries). The castle is thoughtfully restored—great fun to explore—and you can pose by a cannon pointing out to sea.

Bonus Material: Kerlikowske, Kalscheur, Liardet

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Writers: you still have a bit more than a month to enter our summer contest. We’ve received a bunch of prose submissions (three with the particularly intriguing titles “Oil Spills Remind Me of Him,” “The Claybelle Maniacs,” and “Swimming with Sharks. Or Not.”), but not much in the way of poetry. Maybe all you poets are simply wrestling internally over which pieces in your trove o’ verse  are going to knock us out. Hard to give guidance on that. We respond to all subjects, styles, forms (or not). Humor is a great way to capture our attention, but reading over the contributors’ comments on poems in our current issue, I’m struck by how much of what we publish is inspired by tragedy, experienced or imagined. Take the works discussed below. (I should mention that Elizabeth Kerlikowske entered last year’s contest. We ran “The Year of the Rat”—and a number of other entries that were among the finalists—in the prize issue alongside the winner.)

Elizabeth Kerlikowske, “The Year of the Rat”: Writing is a way of chronicling the unspeakable. After my brother murdered a man and took his own life, we did the necessary tasks of slowly dispersing his things. No one spoke of feelings. I chronicled every event. What you read in “A Year of the Rat” is true. I had no idea what zodiac sign my brother was. I’d never eaten Chinese with him, but to find on the day of the final disposal of his belongings that he was a rat. Hmmm. Now, eight months later, sharing my manuscript with selected family has started our conversations.

Josh Kalscheur, “The Girl From Tonoas”: During a weekend I spent on the island of Tonoas, a bunch of kids from the local church group came to sing songs and perform a few organized dances. The priest was there, and many people from the local village came to watch. Among the kids was a girl who had obviously been horribly burned on her face as a child. She was scarred from her chin to her hairline. She was in the front of the dancing group, and she looked directly at me several times throughout the night. In “The Girl from Tonoas” the speaker is trying to imagine the event in which she was burned, in both its sadness and intensity, while also infusing the experience and motion of the dance.

Tim Liardet, “Sky Egg” is one poem in a book-length elegy to my brother (who died in mysterious circumstances and at a very young age), The Storm House, due from Carcanet later this year. The loose couplets in this poem recur throughout the book; they seem to give such subject matter a sort of compulsive, cumulative music. They also point up the dramatic contrasts that exist in this poem. The egg is smooth and perfect and fragile, rich with an unnamed promise; the sky is blue; the climb full of optimism. The blood-freckles on the shell and the wedding dress announce something altogether darker. Such darkness is never far away, but there is always the attempt to offset it with the world’s beautiful surfaces; to balance such darkness with the prospect of a life that might have been lived in a different way.

Considering Course Adoption; or, Cud for the Classroom

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Many thanks to PhD-in-the-making Eric Bliman both for teaching The Cincinnati Review in his poetry workshop and for writing about his and his students’ mental mastication of our mag, which I will refer to (for fun) as cranial cud. To enjoy your own cud—not to mention other beneficial byproducts of journal reading—subscribe or adopt CR for your very own classroom. Contact us at for details on how to make it so.

Translucent Sausages, Speaking Floors, and Bunny-Sluts; or, What We Learned in Workshop from Reading Journals

Eric Bliman: One of my primary tasks as a workshop teacher—maybe “guide” is a better label—is to encourage student-poets to articulate their aesthetic judgments in critical terms. In my syllabus for the undergraduate poetry workshop, I describe the verb like as “a word without character or backbone, which tells us nothing.” Liking or not liking a poem is an aesthetic judgment based on a largely uncodified set of criteria that every reader brings with him or her, like a camel’s hump. We carry it with us, whether or not we know it’s there, or what its purpose is.

For the poetry workshop that I taught this past spring, I used a variety of materials to help students enlarge their understanding of what contemporary poetry can hold, and to help them define their own set of aesthetic criteria. In addition to using a prose reader, several handouts on critical terminology, and an anthology of contemporary poems, I decided to take my friend Adam Vines’s half-joking Facebook suggestion to use the journal he edits as supplementary reading. I never had a workshop teacher use journals in a class, and I wasn’t entirely sure how I would do so, but the idea appealed to me. I ended up choosing two journals that included a hefty number of poems as well as book reviews, and that did not add much to the cost of the materials for the class: Birmingham Poetry Review (No. 38), edited by Vines, and the Cincinnati Review (issues 6.1 and 7.1), whose managing editor is Nicola Mason. Both editors were kind enough to supply copies for students at a deep discount.

In week three, each student wrote his/her first poem for the workshop and prepared a brief, informal presentation based on one poet published in a given journal. As a follow-up assignment, in week seven, students wrote a reflection that addressed: what they learned about their journal, two poets it contained, trends in contemporary poetry that the journal embodied, what they learned as poets from reading it, as well as any challenges and pleasures that the readings presented.

Student-poets who wrote about CR characterized it as eclectic, conversational, metaphor-rich, experience-driven, and “life-shaping.” One student noted that Kelly Davio’s poem “No Good Thing” “personifies ‘dark’ as a being that moves throughout the world,” and that the poet’s use of “extreme metaphors” contrasts with classical poets like Shakespeare. Another student compared three poets’ use of metaphors that he, too, called “extreme”: “Michael McFee describes hot tub jets as ‘underwater geysers,’ Susan Davis describes an earthworm as a ‘translucent sausage,’ and Bryan Narendorf [characterizes] a particular bird’s eye as ‘a charcoal smudge.’” This student comments on the conversational tone of voice embodied by phrases like “I mean” which appears in Mark Kraushaar’s “1-900-CHAT,” and “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with double negatives,” which comes from Marcus Jackson’s “Speech Therapy.” Such moves make the poems seem like part “of a conversation or thought process,” he continues, stressing that the colloquial diction “allows the poet to develop the speaker without directly describing him”—a discovery that he put to use when writing poems for workshop.

One of several student-poets who had written rhymed, Hallmarkian poetry before this class (by her own admission) revealed that “The Cincinnati Review is partially responsible for my escaping the tendency to rhyme compulsively and for expanding my subject matter.” This student writes that, by paying attention to titles, such as Saara Myrene Raappana’s “The Hardwood Laments Its Lowly Position,” she realized that “a subject as unique as a floor expressing its thoughts could be viable,” which opened her eyes to the “variety of creative opportunities contemporary poetry can provide.”

Students who reviewed BPR used the terms relatable, thrilling, mysterious, informal, and haunting to describe its poems. One student noted how Sidney Wade “uses very down-to-earth language” and “writes her poems like she is sitting in front of what she is writing about and watching it happen,” a testament to her sense of pacing and her deft handling of imagery. Another student characterized Charles Harper Webb’s poems as highly descriptive, easy to relate to, and “very colloquial.” Indeed, if we may characterize a poet’s voice as sounding “spoken,” this is an attribute that the majority of poets in CR and BPR have in common. Lesley Jenike’s line “sluts or bunnies, or bunny-sluts” (from “Repurposing Old Buildings Is No Laughing Matter”) inspired one undergrad to write: “There is irony in this poem. . . . A bunny is a soft, angelic, gentle creature, whereas a slut . . . is anything but gentle and angelic.” It’s hard to argue with that.

What was particularly nice about using BPR and CR in the workshop was that both journals publish a fairly large number of poets with two or more poems in each issue; this doubling-up or tripling-up allows each student to speak of a poet’s tendencies, obsessions, common tropes and subjects, as well as the poems’ speakers, tones of voice, use of particular words, and poetic devices. By noting commonalities and differences in form and content, students broaden their (and our) understanding of the poems when they speak or write about them as a group.

In a lot of ways, using contemporary journals in a workshop makes more sense than relying on an anthology editor’s sense of what poems are canonical, a word with troublingly elitist associations. If magazines imply a canon by virtue of publishing certain poets and not others, it is a canon that is wiped clean (or mostly) and rewritten (or mostly) with every issue, roughly like a palimpsest or a whiteboard. This is not to say anthologies shouldn’t be used, but I do think that using them as the foundation for a workshop places the reading list of poems on a pedestal that nearly all student-poets in it will be unable to scale. Journals feel more approachable; they lend themselves to discussions of error, not merely of excellence, in ways that anthologies generally do not; perhaps more important, my students spoke of how they could envision their own work appearing beside certain poets for whom they developed an affinity. For a long time, I wanted to teach a contemporary poetry workshop that was contemporary in the literal sense—and not in the sense of “recent” or “recently departed” poets—and these journals allowed me to do that. I would definitely use them again.

Edith Pearlman Wins PEN/Malamud

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Huge congrats to contributor Edith Pearlman on this prestigious award! Look for “Life Lessons,” a new story from Edith, in our next issue (Volume 8, Number 2: November 2011).

Bonus Material: Davidson, Windholz, Khanna

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Our general reading period may be over, but that doesn’t mean our work is finished. Instead, we’re focusing on our summer contest, which is now open for submissions (submit!). Rumor has it that an armored truck, possibly filled with bees, will deliver the prize money in special-ops fashion, though we suspect it will probably be Nicola’s Honda, with her newest swarm in tow. If you enter, you may want to stock up on Kevlar and Benadryl.

In the meantime, we’re still super-psyched about how well our new issue turned out! Check out what current contributors Craig Davidson, Vandana Khanna, and Jordan Windholz had to say about their work in these pages:

Craig Davidson: For one school year I drove a special needs bus. One day I awoke to find a flyer stuffed in my mailbox: SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS WANTED! NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY! There was a number to call. I called it. This says no more about me than facts should indicate: namely, here was a man who had reached a point where he made life-altering decisions based on random papers shoved into his mailbox. I’m glad I did. I loved that job. I loved those kids. I knew nothing about, say, cerebral palsy or Fragile X or autism. It wasn’t really about learning anything, though—it was just great to be around those kids. I guess “The Burn” came out of that experience, in a way; like a magpie, I tend to cobble stories together out of my own life, albeit at a warped angle.

Jordan Windholz: “See How Small We Are When Perceived in Relation to George Washington’s Portrait” came out of my own frustration with the degree to which America’s civic ideals have been equated with its economic systems, as well as the degree to which American selfhood is measured against the dollar. On the one hand, the poem contemplates how America’s various economic systems have always determined selfhood—who was deemed to have it and who wasn’t—even as it attempts to re- or de-mythologize our most preeminent founding father. On the other hand, the poem is an elegy for the Washington we all seek to live up to—the one we hear about in our youth and the one who still, however spectrally, signifies the America that we all hope to achieve.

Vandana Khanna: “Starlet” began with my love of classic black-and-white films and with the women who inhabit them. I thought about all those expectations of beauty and perfection we have as an audience and how that gets transferred onto the screen, the characters and, in part, to the actresses themselves. The “eye” of the camera, of the audience, tries to define these women, but they aren’t ready to completely surrender. I like that.

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What We’re Reading

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

by Nicola Mason

Suddenly, I am a beekeeper. This is entirely due to the poet Liz Tilton, who some time back completed a brilliant stint as CR’s associate editor. She was an amazing officemate back then (We laughed; we cried; we swapped beet recipes), and she continues to amaze me, only at a slightly greater remove (she’s still on campus, just not in my building). As a beekeeper going on three years now, she is an arthropod enthusiast of the highest order, and she cleverly drew me into her tiny-winged world with the promise of adventure: “I’m going to capture wild swarms,” said Liz. “Do you want to capture wild swarms with me?” My response was something along the lines of, “Um, YEAH.” Five swarm adventures and four stings later, I have two bustling hives in my backyard (one of which Liz helped me build: Nicola, meet table saw; table saw, Nicola), and friends far and wide are recommending bee books, which I thought would be fun to share. Here goes:

Matt McBride: Sylvia Plath has a series of five poems in Ariel about beekeeping, a hobby she took up shortly after the birth of her son Nicholas. In the sequence, Plath both disavows and takes ownership of her domestic role as a mother while also dealing with the dissolution of her marriage. My favorite of these is “Stings,” which has some not so subtle digs (Plath’s sense of humor is always overlooked) at her soon-to-be-ex-husband Ted Hughes.

Jamie Poissant: Check out Natural Order, Jonathan Penner’s novel. It’s the best novel about beekeeping I’ve ever read.

Jennifer Wright-Thomas: Another good bee book that is more about mystery is The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King. The first book in a whole series, it’s Sherlock Holmes but with a feminist twist. I love them! She also writes about a lesbian detective in San Francisco named Kate Martinelli—also wonderful!

Trent Stewart mailed me a copy of Sue Hubbell’s A Country Year, a book of nonfiction. The author lived on a ninety-nine-acre farm at the end of a dirt road in Southern Missouri for twenty-five years—many of them alone after her marriage ended. She learned beekeeping and eventually became the largest honey producer in the region.

“Reciprocity”: Why We Like It

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

It’s not unusual for poet Ruth Williams to disappear on occasion. These absences are often preceded by some sort cryptic comment from Ruth, like “I have, each year, lived past the day I will die.” Then, a week or so later, she’ll return, clutching a pile dried leaves on which she’s jotted existential musings using a sharp stick and caterpillar blood. So when Ruth came into the office to grab a copy of issue 8.1 and muttered, “How could one ever hope to have congress with another,” we realized we may not see her for a bit. Though we still haven’t tracked down Ruth, we have been finding around our building an assortment of leaves with messages scrawled in various fluids—some identifiable as the products of congress, which makes us optimistic about Ruth’s return. The following is a transcription of what we’ve collected (in sealed plastic baggies) so far:

Ruth Williams: I was walking yesterday, and I heard an owl in a nearby tree. It was a contradictory sound: at once specific, a direct “who, who,” yet otherworldly, coming from an indistinct somewhere, nowhere place. Maybe there was still an echo in my head when I read Laura Eve Engel’s poem “Reciprocity,” because its unique use of “who” jumped out to me immediately. As I read the intriguing first line, “And who bites who for a living,” that earlier “who” kept ricocheting delightfully around my head.

In the poem, Engel makes deft use of a repeated structure, each line starting with an “And who” statement that describes the reciprocity, often strange and surreal, that exists between the two whos in the poem. Sometimes the two are in happy concert, “And who skims the scrape off whose knee,” but most times, not, “And who sends who to the bottom of a sweet drink.” Of course, each of these descriptions might also be read as a rhetorical question, one who hoping to make the other own up to his or her actions: “And who shames who into yes-making.”  Who, indeed?

The repetition makes us consider how we assign blame to the others in our lives, failing to reach reciprocity. In essence, Engel wittily captures the push-and-pull at the heart of all relationships. In the last line, the poem comes to a neat close: “And who cries for who and who cries for who.”  While this could be a description of a tender reciprocity, an empathetic moment between the whos, it could also be a final questioning of the relationship itself. Engel leaves it up to the reader to decide which, choosing instead to end with the sound of “who” ringing in our ears.